February 22, 2013

Dinner and a Show

Set of "Avenue Q", Lower Ossington Theatre, Toronto
I treated Mark to a special birthday experience this evening, by starting off with an incredible dinner at an Italian wine bar called Enoteca Sociale. We each had a 4-course prix fixe that was based on a Parmigiano Reggiano theme. 

We then walked over to the popular Ossington strip to Rock  Lobster for drinks.  

Then we took the few steps down the street to the Lower Ossington Theatre to take in a show of Avenue Q, winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. 

We had front row seats so I snapped the picture above for a souvenir.  The musical was hilarious, with stand-out performances from the leads, Cassie Muise and Stephen Amon. Ms. Muise was especially strong and moving, with a powerful vocal delivery and presence. We were pleased to see two Kingston connections in the cast: Kingston native Michael Donnelly was perfect as the comic-relief, gravelly-voiced Trekkie Monster, and Queen's alum Shruti Kothari played the fictional version of child actor "Gary Coleman" 

I'll leave you with some lyrics from one of Kate Monster's best songs: "There's a fine, fine line between together and not/And there's a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got/ You gotta go after the things you want while you're still in your prime...". 

February 17, 2013

Soma Sunday

Despite being rather frigid, we decided to get out and about. We went for a giant stroll eastward along Queen Sreet West, checking out the stores and galleries, including Propeller and MOCCA.

Mark was on a mission to have some hot chocolate at Soma. Soma is among the few chocolate makers that makes chocolate in batches directly from the cacao bean or, as they say, "from bean to bar". They offer a hot chocolate elixir, which is essentially like having a melted top-quality chocolate bar. We each enjoyed a mug and wandered home quite content.

While I made some delicious Moroccan food from the great cookbook The Food of Morocco, Mark snuggled up on the couch to watch "The Blob" (1958) starring Steve McQueen. Such a great B-movie. We had a blast watching this cheesy classic.

February 16, 2013

My Valentine Art

We had a memorable Valentine's evening, starting by attending "The Big Draw", a silent auction fundraiser for the OCAD U Drawing & Painting program.

The auction ran for two hours and it was both fun and tense as we bid on two pieces and kept our eyes on a third. For the entire time we kept a hawk-like eye on the bid sheets next to our most desired work, as well as enjoyed some wine and mingling with our wonderful colleagues.

The last 10 minutes was nerve-wrecking, as we had some counter-bids to contend with. They shut the auction down promptly at 7pm and we emerged as the winning bidders of our favourite piece, a lovely painting by Linda Martinello.

In a great interview with Toronto Standard, Martinello explained, "My work is equally indebted to the long trajectory of landscape art as it is to the fictitious and real histories of places that have inspired it. Series of drawings and paintings that I create point at how ideologically formed, subjective narratives are made into ‘truths’. Connecting the personal with the public is my way of playing with history and its paradoxes".

After paying for our work and getting it wrapped up for transport we hopped in a cab and headed to Liberty Village for a fantastic dinner at our new favourite restaurant, Liberty 25.  Sadly, their website does not have any pictures so have a look here, and you'll see images of some of the food we enjoyed. I started with the Beef Carpaccio with Toasted Walnuts and Shaved Pecorino and my main was Roasted Duck Breast with Potato Gratin, while Mark began with Pan Seared Scallops with Truffled Artichoke Cream and enjoyed Paperdelle with Duck Ragout for his main. We shared a decadent chocolate platter specially made for Valentine's. With its gracious service and perfectly executed food Liberty 25 is a hidden gem that deserves much praise.


February 10, 2013

Poking Around Parkdale

Credit: GlobalHue
While we awoke to a sunny day it was quite cold and especially messy on the streets, thanks to the recent "Snowmageddon". We decided to stick close to home and wandered through the neighbourhood beside us to the west, Parkdale.

BlogTO describes Parkdale as a "diverse community...home to Tibetan, North African and West Indian enclaves mixed in with some of Toronto's best vintage fashion, furniture and fabric stores".  Others, as The GridTO notes, "denigrate Parkdale as a haven for slumming hipsters".

The reality is likely a combination of both descriptions. There is certainly a realness to Parkdale, given its mix of down-and-out denizens, the Tibeten community, roti shops,  dollar stores, art galleries, payday loan joints, food markets, and, yes, dozens of enterprises catering to all things hipster. Parkdale mixes seedy with bohemian, a Bushwick in the making.

We started our walkabout at West End Food Co-op,  then checked out Philistine, stopped for an awesome brunch at The Sister, then headed to our favourite gift shop, Studio Brilliantine, and, finally, my second-favourite vintage store, House of Vintage.


February 9, 2013

Taking in the Moments

We started today with a fantastic brunch at our new favourite restaurant, Liberty 25. We are convinced that this lovely gem offers Toronto's best Eggs Benedict, plus they offer fresh scones with homemade marmalade and cranberry butter. Mmmm!

Our plan for the the afternoon was to head to Corktown and the Distillery District but the Fates had other plans for us. A streetcar along our line decided to hit a delivery van, so we had to get off and make new plans. We ended up taking the subway north to Yorkville and went wandering.

At one point we thought it would be nice to find a cafe and warm up, as it was getting chillier by the half hour. We ended up going down an alley and we stumbled across the Coffee Mill Restaurant. Little did we know we had found a Toronto institution. The menus had a sticker that proudly announced that 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of this establishment that bills itself as "Toronto's oldest coffee house".

I got up from our table to check out one of the many framed newspaper stories about the business, when a diminutive elder woman came over and asked me if I was interested in such things. When I replied very much, she pointed at the picture of the woman hanging above the newspaper clipping and said "That is me". And so it was that I met owner Martha von Heczey, a Hungarian immigrant who established her cafe in 1963.

She sat at the table next to us and we chatted for about 5 minutes. She was happy to tell us that May 16 will mark the official 50th anniversary and she hoped we would come back to visit. I admired the photos of famous patrons along one wall, noting how many of them are Canadian literary stars. This is not a typical celebrity wall, for this place has been a haunt of writers such as Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, George Jonas, and Carol Shields. I later find out that Andras, the hero of Stephen Vizinczey's 1965 novel In Praise Of Older Women, meets a married woman in the cafe. Also, the cafe was Toronto's first European-style sidewalk cafe. Apparently, in provincial Hogtown al fresco dining or drinking was illegal until the early 1960s, and von Heczey was the first to take advantage of the easing of such ridiculous bylaws.

Being hidden down an alleyway and off a courtyard, the Coffee Mill reminded me of Kingston's venerable Chez Piggy, in that there is something to be treasured in being in the company of an old friend. I don't know if the cafe's schnitzel or goulash is the best in the city or not. In many ways it really doesn't matter. A new malady has hit so many people largely thanks to smart phones: foodieism. There is such a fanaticism about finding the "it" spot for [insert type of] cuisine that I worry that folks are missing the forest for the trees. I absolutely adore Chez Piggy, even though there are certainly restaurants in Kingston that are superior in execution. Part of that adoration has to do with the fact that I have been eating there since 1989. Chez Piggy has what so few restaurants ever manage to foster: a soul. There is a personality, a character, an unmistakable Chez Piggyness that I treasure. I got a very real sense that The Coffee Mill is such a place.

All of this brings me to a memorable Chinese New Year dinner with dear friends Patrick and Raymond, at a Chinatown institution, Sky Dragon.  We treated ourselves to a delicious Peking Duck, among other delicious plates and plates and plates. What a fun experience this place was! Hong Kong-style carts, servers in nice embroidered vests, and a marvellous 1980s decor. We had a blast and ate copious amounts of food for all of $60 a couple.

February 7, 2013

30 Years of War

This month marks the 30th anniversary of U2's album War.

[I'll pause a moment to to let that set in...]

1983 was a crucible year for popular music; Punk was dead, New Romanticism was waning and ultimately morphing into Synthpop, and New Wave was emerging.

There were records released in 1983 that would become iconic by the decade's end such as Synchronicity (The Police), and Murmur (R.E.M.), as well as solid releases from Duran Duran, The Cure, The Eurythmics, Madonna, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Billy Idol, and Culture Club that would birth some of the most beloved singles of that huge shoulder pad and large-framed glasses era. Of course, many of those same songs would now be regarded by some as vapid epic cheese. Alas...

For their part, U2 released their distinctive third album in 1983. Coming off the commercial, and somewhat artistic, disappointment that was October (1981), U2 were still hungry for the chart-topper and to live up to the promise so brilliantly displayed in their debut album, Boy (1980). As Niall Stokes so elegantly summarizes in the liner notes of the 25th anniversary remastered album, the early 1980s marked the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. intervention in Lebanon, the Falklands Islands crisis, the actions against the Solidarity movement in Poland, and, of course, the ongoing "Troubles" in Northern Ireland with the corresponding IRA bombings in the U.K.

Looking out at the world U2 replied with War. Bono was quoted in Hot Press Magazine as saying "We wanted an album that would separate us from our contemporaries".  And yet, although written with an anti-pop sentiment the album would ultimately be propelled by two massive pop-rock hits in "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Of course, these songs were not the bubblegum pop of many of their peers. They were pop, for sure, but with a solid progressive rock core.

War is, in my opinion, an album with two epic songs ("Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day"), one really great song ("Two Hearts Bleed as One") and another gem ("Drowning Man") that deserved far, far more attention than it ever received. And all U2 fans adore "40", although that is primarily concert-related, as it was the closing song for their live shows for many years. Outside of the live context "40" has nowhere near the same power, as any U2 concert bootlegger can attest, if they are being honest.

For all of its power and bombast, I never listen to War front-to-back. It certainly has a very strong A-side but it also has a rather weak B-side. "The Refugee" and "Red Light" are almost painful to hear. "Surrender" begins with promise only to be ruined by corny back-up singers and a cowbell. To my taste their oft-maligned "Christian rock" sophomore album October is a superior listening experience. Indeed, "40" sounds like a holdover from the October recording sessions.

Not to take anything away from War, its place among the albums of 1983, and its important role as a milestone in U2's development. It was an important arrival for the band but also an end-point. After the welcome release of the live mini-album Under a Blood Red Sky later in 1983, which featured songs from the War tour, U2 went away and began sowing the seeds for U2 Version 2.0. That evolution would, of course, result in The Unforgettable Fire (1984). But that's another story; one I will share in 2014.

Until then, enjoy this marvellous clip from the concert album Under a Blood Red Sky.